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Month: March 2017

The Lost Poems of Cangjie

Winter Blossom, 2011, by Hung Liu. Woodcut with acrylic; 23.25 x 23.5 in. Copyright © 2011 by Hung Liu, Front cover of The Lost Poems of Cangjie.

Front cover of The Lost Poems of Cangjie: Winter Blossom, 2011, by Hung Liu. Woodcut with acrylic; 23.25 x 23.5 in. Copyright © 2011 by Hung Liu

Subtle, sweet, subversive, and sly, The Lost Poems of Cangjie will leave many readers puzzled – and, equally, delighted. The core of the book consists of two series of lyrical, imagistic poems, both apparently made up of fragmented ancient Chinese verses somewhat in the style of the classic Book of Songs. Individual poems mostly are short, both in line length and in number of lines, and most explore themes of longing and forbidden love.

I’m not kidding when I say ancient. The two poem sequences, as explained in a sort of Borgesian prose frame that describes their origin and discovery, were preserved in scrolls concealed within one of the terra-cotta warriors of the First Emperor’s underground army. One, the “Beta Scroll,” was written near the time of their concealment, which is to say, around 210 BCE, when the Qin dynasty collapsed and was replaced with the Han. (That places these verses roughly contemporaneous with the poems of  Apollonius of Rhodes, author of the Argonautica, and a good century and a half before Vergil.)

But that’s nothing compared to the longer “Alpha Scroll,” which is attributed to Cangjie, the legendary founder of Chinese writing. He is supposed to have lived two and a half millennia earlier still, during the reign of the primogenitor of Chinese culture, the Yellow Emperor. In other words, he is more distant in the past from the author of the Beta Scroll than we are in the present. If these poems are indeed the work of Cangjie, that would make them the oldest extant poems in the world by a considerable margin.

Despite the vast time separation, the two scrolls are similar both stylistically and thematically. This may be attributable in part to the transcription (or translation) of the Cangjie poems by the later Chinese poet, known as “the Sculptor” because of his work as one of the creators of the First Emperor’s underground army. In addition, both poem series are translated into English by a mysterious figure known only as “E. O.” The translator also provides an afterword.

But the book begins with a foreword by John Briscoe, who identifies himself as “a lawyer whose practice takes me to East Asia.” There, we are told, he met E.O., who asked him “to act as agent to bring this work to publication.” (Briscoe in turn asked me to assist in producing the publication — under the imprint of Risk Press, directed by Charlie Pendergast — and I will talk a bit about the book’s design in a subsequent post.)

Seventeenth-century portrait of Cangjie (detail) by an unknown artist.

Seventeenth-century portrait of Cangjie (detail) by an unknown artist.

Briscoe touches on the story of the poems’ creation and their journey into English, but this is explained most fully in the translator’s afterword. E. O.’s prose style is more florid than Briscoe’s (though this is not particularly evident in the poems). This is how he begins:

When words first pealed the ecstasy of sunrise, cried the ache of moonrise, sounded the desolation of this life, we don’t know. We don’t know when sounds first stood as words for we, for home. We don’t know whether a word for home existed before a word for returning home, or for the unutterable ache to return home. We do know, though, that like many words, like whole languages, those clusters of words we call poetry arc like meteors. They blaze brief, if at all. If it is particularly right, for its time, or all time, and if the people who spoke it are not all dead or, if written down, and the libraries holding it have not been put to the torch, then a poetry might persist longer, more like a comet than a meteor, a comet plying the night sky that in the end fades into the cosmos. A poetry that survives centuries, however, much less millennia, stands in the firmament like a constellation, wandering at seasons beyond the horizon, but in time returning to the night sky.

E. O.’s telling of the discovery of the scrolls is cloaked in circumspection for political reasons. “Vagueness,” he tells us, “is the better part of discretion, which is better here than any valor.” A young archaeologist, E. O. explains, chanced upon the scrolls within the torso of a terra-cotta soldier as he was working on the excavation of the underground army. To the First Emperor is traditionally attributed a great Burning of the Books, and these scrolls were apparently hidden to avoid that fate. Worried that the scrolls might even today be suppressed or destroyed for political reasons — because they are critical of political rulers and might be seen as seditious — the archaeologist concealed his discovery and removed the scrolls. Eventually the poems were translated by E. O. into English.

I mentioned that the scrolls share certain themes. The archaeologist’s concern about the possibility of their being viewed as seditious results from a shared animus toward emperors and their high-handed governance. Each poet served a strong emperor: Cangjie the Yellow Emperor and the Sculptor the First Emperor (although the Yellow Emperor preceded him by millennia, Qin Shihuang is known as the First Emperor because he unified China only a couple of centuries before the beginning of the common era). In the words of E. O.,

A number of the verses of Cangjie speak (not at all with affection) of an emperor, the Yellow Emperor. Verses of the sculptor, the transcriber of Cangjie’s poems, also speak occasionally of an emperor, the First Emperor. At times Cangjie’s emperor seems a conjured emperor, at times not. The loathed emperor of the sculptor, though, is not a conjured emperor, no mere metaphor for life’s oppressions and petty oppressors. He is, plainly, the historical figure the First Emperor, the Burner of the Books.

For example, the Sculptor writes the First Emperor

First Emperor is only
an emperor, only
another emperor.
But this emperor burns our books.
Burners of books
in the end burn people.

while Cangjie writes of the Yellow Empeor

Emperor practices jealousy
as if it were an art
like falconry, or archery.
He more than lusts,
he is more than jealous,
he is envious of the beauty
sleeping languid in your skin
and not in his.
He seethes when he sees you before him.
Does he take you thinking
you will ravish him
and he will be reborn as you?

The object of the Yellow Empeor’s lust was one of his concubines, who perhaps resembled the woman depicted in the cover art by contemporary artist Hung Liu.  Cangjie loved this woman, who of course was unattainable to him, and, we are told, invented writing to communicate his love to her. As the Sculptor explains:

Cangjie watched
in mudded shallows
the tracks long-legged
wading birds made,
little prints the feet of song birds
left in snow.

. . .

The prints of feet of song birds
were pictures of words
for moonset, and breast
and yes.

An egret leapt into flight
leaving in sand the etched word

Cangjie perhaps alludes to teaching his love to read his poems in the first fragment of his series (part of which was indecipherable to the translator):

You have listened to my poems. Now
I teach you
to see them        to [?.?.?.?]

Mostly his poems express his love and longing. The poems are imagistic, economical, heartfelt, and lovely. The fascinating prose frame that surrounds them (and sometimes manifests in footnotes to the poems themselves), should not cause us to overlook the poetic quality of the verses themselves. These verses, for example, are typical of Canjie:

Like your lashes
your hands flutter?—
quails in a bush
at an approach?—
this time.

. . .

The court lights — has a sun pierced
clouds outside?
No, it is you entering,
smiling. You have, I think,
drunk more than a cup of wine.

. . .

A band of players pipes
a tune, an air?—
no, it is you
somewhere in the open court.
I will have another cup
brought to you.

Is it all an elaborate put-on? Perhaps, but the sentiments are real and the verses are moving, informed by poetical tradition and crafted with an awareness of poetic technique. Borges would have loved the deadpan literate frame, and Cervantes — whose Quixote is attributed to a Moorish author, Cide Hamete Benengeli — would have appreciated the possibly deflected authorial attribution. And even more the empathatic impulse to acknowledge universal human feelings across vast cultural boundaries. The Lost Poems of Canjie is one of the most original and fulfilling books I have read in a long time. Highly recommended.

Selections from a Grace Paley Interview

Grace Paley. Detail from a photo accompanying her interview in the Paris Review.

Grace Paley. Detail from a photo accompanying her interview in the Paris Review.

This interview with Grace Paley by Jonathan Dee, Barbara Jones, and Larissa MacFarquhar ran in the Paris Review in 1992. Still of interest.

The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.

A lot of [my stories] begin with a sentence—they all begin with language. It sounds dopey to say that, but it’s true. Very often one sentence is absolutely resonant…. I begin by writing paragraphs that don’t have an immediate relation to a plot. The sound of the story comes first.

Two things happen when you get older. You have more experience, so you either seem wiser, or you get totally foolish. There are only those two options. You choose one, probably the wrong one.

There’s an idea that there’s this great mainstream, which may be wide but is kind of shallow and slow-moving. It’s the tributaries that seem to have the energy.

You can’t write without a lot of pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from anger, which then changes into a pressure to write. It’s not so much a matter of getting distance as simply a translation. I felt a lot of pressure writing some of those stories about women. Writers are lucky because when they’re angry, the anger—by habit almost—I wouldn’t say transcends but becomes an acute pressure to write, to tell…. The pressure doesn’t have to be anger. It could be love. One could be overcome with feelings of lifetime love or justice. Why not?

Read the rest here.




Eliot Weinberger, literary renegade

On an overcast evening last November, I met the American essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger at a gentrified West Village coffee shop. Having got there early, I was looking out the window to see him approach: an impressively balding man dressed in austere literary attire—faded navy jacket, plain t-shirt, lit European cigarette—placidly weaving his way through a crowd of suited professionals and hip yuppies.

It was an apt image, in its gentle anachronisms. The village, once a cheap artistic refuge, has today turned into a playground for supermodels and hedge funders. Most of its (and America’s) writers have in turn gentrified themselves, leaving society for this or that university. But through these dismal decades of late-capitalism, Weinberger has remained heroically independent: a lonely polymath upholding American modernism from his apartment.

This principled independence is one reason that he’s developed a cult following home and abroad, even if his books have been largely ignored by the American press. I first came across him when a renegade Chinese professor handed me a roughed-up copy of his 1987 pamphlet on translation, ‘19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei’, with the following words: “Weinberger is the only Westerner who understands Tang poetry.” A new version of that book, along with his latest collection of essays, The Ghost of Birds, were recently published in the U.S. They were my pretext for meeting him, though of course I hardly needed one….

From a profile by Ratik Asokan of my friend Eliot Weinberger in The Hindu. Please continue reading there.

Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty

Jade suit, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.1. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.. Unlike jade death suits that have been seen here in the past, this one was made for a royal woman.

Jade suit, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.1. Photograph © Nanjing Museum. Unlike jade death suits that have been seen here in the past, this one was made for a woman.

In 210 BCE Shi Huangdi, the “First Emperor” of China, died at the age of forty-nine, likely from poisoning by the very elixirs that were supposed to make him immortal. He was placed in an underground tomb where he would be protected for eternity by thousands of life-sized terra-cotta warriors. In 2013 some of those warriors took a break from their guardian duties to visit San Francisco as part of the Asian Art Museum’s exhibition China’s Terracotta Warriors.: The First Emperor’s Legacy.

Above ground, things did not go well for the emperor’s people. Less than four years after his death, his empire collapsed. A new power, based first in Chang’an and later in Luoyang, controlled China. It would be known as the Han dynasty, lending its name to the country’s majority ethnic group. It would endure for more than four hundred years (while the West was dominated by imperial Rome). The new dynasty was marked by economic and technical development, as well as a great cultural flourishing. It too left elaborate tombs full of spectacular and intriguing artifacts. Now a new Asian Art Museum show presents 160 such objects, most never before seen outside China, in Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty (through May 28).

Few fields have advanced as rapidly as the archaeology of ancient China in recent decades. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not many archaeologists were systematically exploring sites in China. This omission began to be remedied in the second half of the twentieth century, resulting in the first major exhibition devoted to the new discoveries, Archaeological Finds of The People’s Republic of China, organized by the U.S. National Gallery and the Nelson Atkins Museum in 1974. Twenty-five years later, the same institutions teamed up on another major exhibition, The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology. Since that time there has been an explosion of archaeological activity in China, and scholars are still working on making sense of the ongoing discoveries.

Belt hook in the shape of a dragon, unearthed from Tomb 12, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Silver. Nanjing Museum. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.

Belt hook in the shape of a dragon, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 12, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Silver. Nanjing Museum. Photograph © Nanjing Museum. The two pieces making up this belt hook are inscribed with characters reading “Forget me not.”

Traditional Chinese histories tended to treat the nation’s development as the passing of the mandate of heaven from one monolithic dynasty to another. But the archaeological discoveries have suggested that ancient China was more multiplistic and multicultural than had previously been acknowledged. Chinese culture, to judge from the archaeological finds, did not arise in one place and then spread throughout China so much as it arose in multiple and varied locations, with several regional cultural groups all contributing to the mix.

Under the leadership of director Jay Xu, the Asian Art Museum has intensified efforts to strengthen working relations with sister institutions in China, as well as to keep abreast of the rapidly changing developments in the archaeology of ancient China. (Xu received his doctorate from Princeton University with a specialization in early Chinese art and archaeology.) The objects in this exhibition mostly come from mausoleums excavated in 2011 belonging to the Jiangdu Kingdom at Dayun Mountain, and from royal tombs of the Chu Kingdom at Xuzhou, first uncovered in 1995. They were borrowed from museums in Nanjing, Xuzhou, and Yizheng, all located in Jiangsu province, near Shanghai, where the new archaeological discoveries were made.

Co-curated by Xu and Fan Jeremy Zhang, the museum’s senior associate curator of Chinese art, the exhibition is organized into three areas built around Han-era phrases found on period objects:

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Left face / Right face: Abe Lincoln.

Mailbag: Left Abe, Right Abe Makes Textbook Appearance

Left face / Right face: Abe Lincoln.

Left face / Right face: Abe Lincoln.

A representative of Oxford University Press writes requesting permission to use this image of Abe Lincoln (one of the 44 U.S. presidents better than the current one) in a textbook entitled MYP Biology 4&5. Of course I am delighted.

The image is part of a project I did about a decade ago comparing the left and right sides of people’s faces. I divided a series of face in half and showed what they would look like if both halves were like the right size versus both halves being like the left side.

I noted when I posted this image that “Lincoln had a condition called cranial facial microsomia — the left side of his face was much smaller than the right.” Above are, left to right, two-right-face Lincoln, actual Lincoln, and two-left-face Lincoln.


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